Pro-Nuclear Propaganda: How Science, Government and the Press Conspire to Misinform the Public

by Lorna Salzman



After the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster in the Soviet Union, there was much finger-wagging in the US about the suppression of information there, and the purported differences in reactor design and safety requirements between Russia and the US, which made a similar accident here unlikely if not impossible.

But the similarities between how technical information and failure are handled there and here, as well as those in reactor design and the potential for reactor failure are striking. These similarities extend to the press as well as government, but in this respect there is a major difference. In the Soviet Union censorship is imposed by the central government. In the US it is self-imposed.

For example, there was and is nothing in this country to prevent a scientist or journalist or academic researcher from reporting fully and accurately on the consequences of the Chernobyl accident. In this respect we are indeed fortunate to have had independent and impartial scientists like Dr. John Gofman, the leading radiation health expert in the US and formerly of the government-supported Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California.

Dr. Gofman, using the admittedly incomplete data released by Russia and other European countries, applied rigorous analysis in the context of what is known about Chernobyl-type and size reactors and in the context of highly responsible statistical and epidemiological calculations based on standard radiation dose/response relationships. What Gofman came up with, and what no one in government or the nuclear industry has been able to refute, is an estimate that about one million people throughout the world will develop cancer from Chernobyl fallout, half of whom will eventually die.

Gofman delivered the results of his study before the American Chemical Society annual meeting in Anaheim, California. His figures pointed to 424,300 cancers in the Soviet Union, and 526,700 in Europe and elsewhere over a 70-year period as a result of cesium exposure and ingestion from the accident of April 1986, plus another 19,500 leukemias and an unknown number of thyroid and other cancers from other radioisotopes. These figures are over five times greater than the highest previous estimates, which range from 2000 to 75,000 premature deaths.

The reasons for this huge discrepancy - reasons never explored by the press nor revealed by our government and therefore unknown to the public - lie in the fact that the long-term effects of low-level radiation exposure have consistently been downplayed, distorted or concealed by scientists, the nuclear industry and the government. Even though a patient search of government information can sometimes reveal the phrase "There is no such thing as a safe dose of radiation", this simple sentence conceals multitudes of information. Gofman says: "There is no dose so small that the body can perfectly repair all resulting damage to DNA and the chromosomes". The nuclear industry and the government have long promoted the notion that non-observable, long-term latent effects of low doses of radiation are in effect non-existent; they can safely do this because such effects are not manifested for years or decades, and a specific cancer or genetic defect cannot be traced back to any particular radiation exposure. Accordingly, as Gofman puts it, nuclear power is "mass, random, premeditated murder".

"Undetectable" of course does not mean non-existent. For each amount of radioactivity released into the environment, there will be a statistically certain number of cancers, leukemias and other ill effects that will occur somewhere at some time; only the date and victims' names are unknown. Right down to a zero radiation dose, these victims will appear. And, as Gofman's Chernobyl figures show, people outside the immediate area can be at greater risk than those closer in. As a means of comparison, Gofman notes that the malignancies that arise from one nuclear reactor accident rival the number caused by all the above-ground nuclear bomb tests of the US, UK and USSR combined.

An information blackout occurred in this country as a result of directives from the White House, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the Dept. of Energy (DOE), and the Dept. of Agriculture (DOA) right after Chernobyl. Government scientists were instructed not to talk to journalists. Even United Press International (UPI) backed down by saying that it could not stand by its initial estimate of 2000 immediate deaths, all of which led the public to conclude that the Soviets were the victims of censorship, while we here in the US had a free press.

It seems that while the US and the USSR had a hard time cooperating on nuclear arms at that time, they had a tacit agreement to cover up each other's nuclear power mistakes. In 1957, what was probably the worst nuclear accident in the world before Chernobyl took place in the Ural Mountains at what is believed to be a nuclear waste dump. Over a thousand square kilometers in the southern Urals were drenched with radioactivity and rendered permanently uninhabitable. Hundreds died immediately, and long-term effects will never be known. The entire industrial area was evacuated; whole rivers, lakes and watersheds became irreversibly contaminated and the area was fenced off to prohibit entry.

Zhores Medvedev, a renowned Soviet scientists, knew about the accident, and in 1973, living in England, was astounded to learn that no one in the West knew about (or cared to admit they knew) the accident. Medvedev published an article in 1976 about the accident which was then reprinted in many western newspapers. The response from the UK, France and the US nuclear establishment was unanimous: they denied that such an accident was technically possible. The then-chairman of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, Sir John Hill, called Medvedev's report "rubbish" and his comments were printed in the NY Times on Nov. 8, 1976 in a Reuters dispatch. Though Medvedev's research, published later in his book "Nuclear Disaster in the Urals", provided detailed information that indicated a nuclear waste accident, nuclear scientists preferred to blame the Soviets for poor radioactive waste handling, thus averting the issue of nuclear power safety entirely. Medvedev's Freedom of Information Act requests to the US Energy Research & Development Authority and the CIA came back to him heavily censored; most documents he had requested were classified and never released.

The Soviets were not the only ones willing to kill their own people, however. In the 1950s, the US Army, with the complicity of Congress, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), nuclear scientists and physicians, and top levels of government, deliberately marched American soldiers to within 100 yards of ground zero in nuclear bomb tests in Nevada; those victims are still dying today as may any defective offspring. Here are some of the testimonials to those tests:

"Nuclear testing, by and large, has been one of the safest things that was ever done", Robert Newman, Nevada test site manager.

"No one has ever been crippled, killed or severely maimed in a nuclear weapons test", Gordon Jacks, former Army Colonel, 18-year veteran of atomic testing.

"People have got to learn to live with the facts of life, and part of the facts of life are fallout", Willard Libby, AEC Commissioner, AEC meeting of Feb. 23, 1955.

What was behind these blanket denials of the truth? First, keep in mind that these facts, like all those about nuclear power and nuclear weapons testing, were kept secret and released only through the efforts of private citizens and a few courageous researchers and journalists. The AEC, in the 1950s, was fearful of being put out of business and in particular of the consequences if the public became suspicious about nuclear fallout, especially because they had gone to such lengths to separate the civilian nuclear power program from the military nuclear weapons program. Data on actual fallout as well as human exposure and the resultant health effects were held only by the AEC lab at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The AEC in fact dismissed the notion that humans could ingest strontium from milk and insisted they could ingest it only from eating bone splinters from poorly butchered animals. Regarding radioactivity in the food chain, from animals eating plants growing in fallout areas, they said: "...experiments have indicated that there is no hazard to human health from this source", although it is doubtful that such experiments ever took place.

At least 250,000 American troops were directly exposed to atomic radiation during the 17 years of bomb testing here and in the Pacific, but they have been totally ignored by the government and the Army. Receiving continual unabated assurances of complete safety, these troops were employed literally as human guinea pigs to demonstrate how people could function in a fallout-contaminated area in the event of a nuclear war. It took 30 years before the US government even agreed to conduct any studies of health effects on these troops, and even now the government and Army reject the notion that they are liable in any way for the horrendous and pitiful condition of the survivors and the families of those who died. The Smoky test in Nevada in 1957 showed over twice the normal leukemia rate among servicemen, and later this was amended to three times the rate...and this test exposed only 1% of all those servicemen exposed to nuclear test fallout. There is little doubt that hundreds died and that countless others developed illnesses that led to death from various cancers, blood disorders and chronic body ailments. Today the government still rejects all claims for such illnesses.*

How did the media handle this? On Sept. 28, 1980, on CBS" "Sixty Minutes", there were brief interviews with some atomic veterans but the program concentrated mainly on the Defense Nuclear Agency director, Vice-Admiral Robert Monroe. Monroe stated to Morley Safer and millions of viewers that the Army took "meticulous precautions to insure that exposures were within limits" and denied that there was any statistical increase in cancer deaths from the tests, adding: "This weapon testing is a very, very, very, very tiny amount of low-level radiation". No opposing views were presented on the program, nor was any mention made of the Center for Disease Control's new study that showed a leukemia rate for veterans of over twice the expected rate. In response to angry viewers, which included some atomic veterans, CBS told them to get in touch with --you guessed it - the Defense Nuclear Agency.

The press also played a role in soothing public fears. NY Times science writer William Laurence, writing about the Bikini tests in the Pacific, said: "Before Bikini, the world stood in awe of this new cosmic force. Since Bikini, this feeling of awe has largely evaporated and has been supplanted by a sense of relief..."

The Nevada test site fallout didn't stay put, however. It drifted downwind into Mormon areas in Utah. Several years later, leukemias, lymphomas and other cancers and genetic defects began emerging in this area, particularly among children. The AEC continually stated to local residents that "There is no danger", and most studies done about this area and about nuclear tests in general were secret until 1979. An AEC booklet distributed six years after testing said: "...Nevada test fallout has not caused illness or injured the health of anyone living near the test site".

The effects of weapons testing fallout wasn't limited to nearby residents. The cast and film crew of a Howard Hughes movie, filmed near St. George, Utah in 1954 for three months, took an enormous toll over the next 25 years. John Wayne, Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead and Dick Powell all died of cancer between 1960 and 1979. Of a total number of 220 in cast and crew, 91 had gotten cancer by 1980 and half of those had died by then, not counting the native Americans who served as extras in the film.

What did the press do about public protests? The Los Angeles Examiner writer Jack Lotto, in March 1955, blamed these on a Communist scare campaign to stop weapons testing. US News & World Report published an article by Willard Libby citing AEC evidence that fallout would "not likely be at all dangerous". Syndicated columnist David Lawrence cited "world-wide propaganda" that was duping people and "some well-meaning scientists" were "playing the Communist game unwittingly by exaggerating the importance of radioactive substances known as 'fallout', and contended that the Nevada tests were "for a humanitarian purpose".

It is interesting to note that two years prior to the Smoky test, in 1955, AEC Chairman Lewis Strauss suppressed a paper by geneticist Hermann Muller on the genetic effects of radiation. Muller was the discoverer in 1927 of the fact that X-rays caused increased mutations in plants and animals, for which he later received the Nobel Prize. The AEC also was responsible for removing his paper from a UN meeting on "peaceful uses of the atom", held that year in Geneva, mostly, they said, because he mentioned Hiroshima, which they considered "definitely inadmissible" at such a conference.

The fact is that the US has led the world in setting examples of deliberate deceit, suppression of information and harassment of nuclear critics, of which the best example was the Three Mile Island (TMI) accident in Pennsylvania in 1979. Just twelve days before the accident, Gov. Richard Thornburgh had appointed as state Secretary of Health a distinguished doctor and engineer, Gordon MacLeod, in order to restore the reputation of the state health department. Eight months after the accident, only a little over one-quarter into the two-year term MacLeod had agreed to serve, Thornburgh called MacLeod into his office and requested his resignation, claiming a "difference in institutional style".

More to the point was the fact that MacLeod had been a critic of the Thornburgh administration's handling of the TMI accident. The day after the accident news got out, MacLeod urged the governor to evacuate pregnant women and children from a five-mile radius around the plant (later he said he should have urged this for puberty-age children too, who are extremely radiation-sensitive). But no one else in the state agencies agreed and said the evacuation was unnecessary. Thornburgh finally, two days later, agreed to the evacuation after consulting with the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Joseph Hendrie.

MacLeod tried valiantly to take all possible steps to minimize radiation exposure. He requested, in vain, a Federal radiation health expert from the NRC and was told they had no radiation physicians on staff or anyone trained in radiation medicine. He tried to get potassium iodide pills from the Federal government, to block thyroid absorption of iodine-131. Five days later, far too late to be of any use, 11,000 vials arrived, more than half of which were unlabelled. Many had only half the dose required, some droppers did not fit the vials, and others had visible contamination. MacLeod also took issue publicly with the testimony of Pennsylvania's chief of radiation monitoring, Thomas Gerusky, before the Federal Kemeny investigative commission and stated his objections in a letter to Kemeny. That seemed to be the "last straw for the Thornburgh administration", and MacLeod was removed soon after.

Meanwhile, what scientists call "cooked" statistics started emerging from the Pennsylvania Dept. of Epidemiological Research, headed by Dr. George Tokuhata. Vital statistics on infant mortality began looking inordinately small, but Tokuhata claimed "printing error". The NY Times enthusiastically printed the state's claims about no increase in infant mortality. The statistics, still being held confidential by the state, did begin leaking out through anonymous calls to MacLeod, who then released what he knew in a church sermon to force the state to release them. The figures showed a sharp increase in the six-month period after TMI. It was later shown that the state had deliberately eliminated the black population in Harrisburg when calculating the data, because of their higher rate of infant mortality than whites. Such subtraction had been done only for the 1979 statistics, the year of the TMI accident, not for any other years, and when the black infant mortality was added in, the local rates for the area under study showed a sharp increase.

Similar withholding and distortion of information occurred regarding thyroid deficiency problems in young children to the southeast of the plant; again, Tokuhata trimmed off some cases to bring the state's figures down to a normal rate. MacLeod pointed out that even accepting Tokuhata's subtractions, there was still a five- to ten-fold increase. Again the NY Times accepted Tokuhata's figures unquestioningly, and printed an editorial about "scare stories" regarding radiation damage from TMI,savagely attacking MacLeod who, they said, "irresponsibly publicized some of the raw data suggesting the existence of health problems".

The question I am most often asked by the pblic is: if the nuclear establishment and its families are equally at risk from nuclear power as the rest of us, why do they lie about its dangers? There are various reasons. Professionals, in order to perform their work, resist truth strongly if it calls the morality of their work into question. They sincerely believe they are helping humankind. In addition, scientific research involves so many uncertainties that scientists can, with an easy conscience, rationalize away dangers that are hypothetical or not immediately observable. They also have an intellectual investment if not a financial one in continuing their work as well as families to support, and nuclear science in particular has been endowed not only with government money and support but great status and prestige. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which publishes the journal Science, just chose a nuclear physicist and former Assistant Director of Research for the AEC, Alvin Trivelpiece, as its executive director.

In order to perform professional work, one must not only believe one is doing good but must also rationalize the dangers. Indeed, with regard to ionizing radiation, this is quite easy inasmuch as the risks of radiation exposure at any level are statistical and not immediately manifested. If the odds of dying from a given amount of exposure are one in 100,000, it is easy for a scientist to rationalize that it won't be him. A recent article in the NY Times on the obituary page caught my eye; a man named Mack, aged 52, died of cancer. The article noted that he and his sister were the first two children who ventured onto the site of a nuclear test in the 1950s, where their father worked as a scientist. The article also noted that Mack's sister had died of cancer the previous year. I wondered if the father is still alive, and if he ever had second thoughts about allowing his young children onto that site, or whether his pride (or guilt) had prevented him from acknowledging that he had literally sacrificed his children to the nuclear priesthood.

As you may have noticed, there is no relationship between these incredible conspiracies of silence and distortion and the political party in power. Those in Congress who permitted these things have first loyalty to the institution in which they serve, not to truth; anything that threatens that institution is subversive, even if what they are doing harms the public. It is the same in foreign policy. The illegal violent intervention - state terrorism actually -committed by the US government against innocent Nicaraguans is a policy whose roots were planted deeply not by right-wingers or Republicans but by New Deal-type democrats, primarily Pres. Harry Truman, as was the virulent anti-Communism of that same era.

With regard to the various US interventions in Latin America, and specifically Nicaragua, the press meekly accepts the government handouts as fact, along with the myth that Commnists will take over the world and south Texas unless we overthrow the Sandinistas. But the facts are otherwise and indisputable as any reading of Nicaraguan history will show. Ignoring such history the US Congress readily accepts the Reagan-Kennedy-Truman doctrine of "containing" Communism at all costs, accompanied by "excuse us, we're really sorry about the deaths of those innocent farmers, doctors, teachers, nurses and babies".

Some of this history is in order. Nicaragua is not a Marxist-Leninist state. Most of its directorate were Social Democrats, some were Christian Democrats and some were Conservatives. What none of them were was Communist. Communists were excluded from the Sandinista directorate because they OPPOSED the revolution against Somoza (not the first or last time the Communist Party would oppose popular pro-democracy uprisings). Why did they oppose it? Because the revolution was not inspired or controlled by Moscow and the Communist Party. It was, rather, a homespun, nationalist, socialistic revolution stressing social welfare reforms, not a centralized authoritarian revolution. Some Left critics of the Sandinistas are upset because land reform has not gone far enough. The notion that Nicaraguans pose a threat to the US is on a par with the notion that Grenada's former left government posed such a threat. Half of Nicaragua's population is under the age of sixteen, and Nicaragua does not even possess an air force.

The Reagan doctrine of hegemony was developed long ago, and is best expressed by a statement made by George Kennan, in a 1948 document, when he headed the planning staff of the Dept. of State. He wrote: "...we have about 50% of the world's wealth but only 6.3% of its population. In this situation we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction...We should cease to talk about vague and -for the Far East - unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better".

After a democratic civilian government was overthrown with US help in El Salvador, John F. Kennedy said that "governments of the civil-miltary type of El Salvador are the most effective in containing Communist penetration in Latin America". Of course what he and modern-day "liberals" call Communism has nothing to do with Soviet Russia. Rather, as a 1955 study of the National Planning Association and the Woodrow Wilson Foundation noted, the main threat of "Communism" is that it could lead to transformation of Communist powers "in ways which reduce their willingness and ability to complement the industrial economies of the West". Such complementary roles were and are played magnificently not only by the former Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua but by similar military dictatorships in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Thus, the real threat posed by Nicaragua lies in its nature as a nationalist, non-aligned, independent revolution not beholden to and controlled by the US interests - in other words, that it was a true popular democratic revolution that put human social welfare and equity first, in direct confrontation with foreign hegemonic powers, US or Soviet. Such popular-based revolutions set a powerful example to other oppressed nations, hence their unacceptability to the US.

That Congress, the press, academia, the military and Big Science collaborate and conspire with whichever faction rules the White House is not recent nor surprising. Their interests and the continuation of political and economic conditions that reinforce their powers and the institutions that support them - corporations, universities, research institutions, think tanks, mass media, often the courts, supranational agencies like the World Bank and other international agencies not accountable to the public - are what both rule this country and facilitate domestic and foreign policy. This is a lesson that political activists need to heed. American society, in its diversity and tolerance, supported by a remarkable Constitution, has many ways of absorbing various demands such as equal rights for minorities, welfare state programs, etc. Such incremental reforms pose no threat whatsoever to either the economic or foreign policy hegemony exerted over the rest of the world. Social issues can and will eventually be accommodated, without rocking the real boat.

What is threatening, however, are movements that directly challenge such hegemony, whether in the form of Star Wars nuclear weapons in space or ecologically based movements questioning the US (and global) model of untrammeled economic growth and resource consumption, and of course anti-intervention movements. These go to the heart of the very values and objectives of the central state, which in the case of the US is not readily indistinguishable from the Soviet Union. In fact, as Noam Chomsky has pointed out, the existence of civil rights and liberties in the US has functioned to draw attention away from the execrations of foreign policies that assist in, directly or indirectly, the commission of some of the most revolting human rights violations in history, accurately called state terrorism.

The Philadelphia Inquirer courageously printed a series of articles on the Pentagon's' "Black Budget" the $35 billion or so of under-the-counter money given them, with carte blanche with Congressional approval. The Iran-Nicaragua arms deal to support the contras in Nicaragua was part of this, as are indeed many of the other assassinations and subversions of the CIA and NSA. There is no public oversight over this budget or over the use of these funds; it is the equivalent of the KGB in the Soviet Union. The Philadelphia Inquirer stood virtually alone in sticking out its neck, to show the dirty underside of what purports to be a democracy. Let us hope others follow their example.

(Sources: Cover Up: What you are not supposed to know about Nuclear Power, Karl Grossman, Permanent Press; The Washington Connection & 3rd World Fascism, Noam Chomsky & Edward S. Herman, South End Press; The Turning Tide, Noam Chomsky, Pluto-South End Press; Killing Our Own, Harvey Wasserman & Norman Solomon, Delta (Dell) Publishing.)

*As of 2001, the DOE has acknowledged culpability and has agreed to compensate survivors for damages.

(Lecture delivered by Lorna Salzman at Hunter College, Energy Studies program, 1986).

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.